Denis Johnson is my favorite author, so maybe I’m not critical enough. Recently, I read his (only) non-fiction work, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond. To much acclaim. It boggles my mind how such a beautiful prose writer can transform his observations into such powerful journalism.
Published in 2001, most of these reports and essays take place during the 1990s. Clinton is around. West Africa and the Middle East have similar problems as they have now.
Visit Liberia and learn all about the “Civil War in Hell.” “Cans of Pestall bug poison lie scattered in the gutter, hacked open, the contents swallowed down by ravenous Monrovians who couldn’t read the labels.”
Read about hippies at the Rainbow Gathering in the wilderness of Oregon, Johnson taking enough mushrooms to make a grizzly bear bleary-eyed. “My eyesight too geometrically pattered to allow them faces. They had myths instead of heads.”
Johnson covers an event where motorcycle enthusiasts celebrate the greatness of Jesus. He visits Alaska with his wife to mine gold for their wedding rings. He introduces the reader to a pilot made famous for the number of crashes he survived. “Three Deserts” covers the harsh contrasts and similarities with Afghanistan, New Mexico, and Kuwait. From abandoned zoos where tigers run wild to cult communities in the middle of nowhere to the start of World War III. Of a strange phenomenon in the desert of Kuwait, Johnson writes, “Four kilometers to the northeast, a lake of fire burns on the desert floor—something to do with an oil refinery—burning so brightly it lights the entire sky as the night comes down, but the boys have no idea why it’s burning. It just does; it burns and burns. I myself begin to tremble. It’s the deep, primitive terror of History’s devouring darkness.”
Inner musings about America and freedom, old stories of childhood days in Boy Scouts in the Philippines, a rough and tumble bar in Montana, it all adds up to the curiosity and workings of Denis Johnson. He discusses the problems with Somalia, one of the few journalists with enough balls to stay around and see what happens.
The final article is the strongest, and the longest, taking up nearly 30% of the book, as Johnson returns to Liberia on assignment for The New Yorker. Confusions and new plans led to airstrikes, jets so loud that windows shattered. He tries his best to cover the conflict between Nigeria and Liberia, but seems just as confused as the reader, meeting bizarre foreigners and kids with machine guns along the way, writing, “We saw a few women and kids, but the population seemed mostly to be barefoot teenage men wearing the rags and tags of camouflage outfits and carrying rifles.” West Africa seems to blow Johnson’s mind, as he can’t grasp the lack of logic and lack of rules. “A man with a guitar on his back and a loaded rocket launcher on his shoulder pointed his weapon every which way, shadowing a weeping young woman down the street.”
Read Johnson’s book, as I have told you before, from Angels to Fiskadoro to Train Dreams. I can’t recommend his books enough. Read Seek and read some of the best journalism about the blind parts of the world that Americans never consider.